Pompeii


Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland's imperial ass.

Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland’s imperial ass.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (TriStar) Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Jessica Lucas, Sasha Roiz, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Dylan Schombing, Rebecca Eady, Maxime Savana, Ron Kennell, Tom Bishop Sr., Jean-Francois Lachapelle, Jean Frenette, Dalmar Abuzeid, Melantha Blackthorne. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

There’s an old saying that “man proposes, God disposes” and if by God you mean a volcano then you have a point. The best-laid plans of mice and men do not stand well before an erupting Mt. Vesuvius.

Milo (Harrington) is a gladiator. He wasn’t always a gladiator – as a young boy (Schombing), he was the only survivor of a Celtic Horse Clan that was wiped out in rebellion against Rome by the Centurion Corvus (Sutherland) and his right hand swordsman Proculus (Roiz).  He only survived by playing dead but not before witnessing the butchering of his mother (Eady) and father (Lachapelle). He was discovered by slavers and trained as a gladiator.

As a gladiator in the British isles he soon became known for his speed and his skills and as a young man was virtually unbeatable. Recognizing that he was far too skilled for the hinterlands, it was decided that Milo be taken to Pompeii to see how he fares. Pompeii is just a hop, skip and a jump from the big time in Rome.

Pompeii, a seaside resort town, is having some issues of its own. Much of it is dilapidated and aging and leading citizen Severus (Harris) is eager to rebuild much of it, attracting more tourism. In particular the arena is obsolete and cannot accommodate the extremely popular chariot races, so his grand plan includes the construction of a new arena. He is hopeful that the new emperor will invest but instead he gets Corvus.

Corvus however has an agenda of his own and it involves Severus’ daughter Cassia (Browning). She had spent a year in Rome but sickened by the corruption she saw there, had returned home to her father and mother Aurelia (Moss). However, her principle reason for leaving had been the dogged and unwanted pursuit by Corvus who now means to use her as leverage against her father.

In the meantime however a chance roadside meeting had led Cassia and Milo to meet. Sparks flew immediately, an event not unnoticed by Ariadne (Lucas), Cassia’s servant. However, Milo has more to worry about – he is set to meet Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion gladiator who needs one more win to earn his freedom. The two end up respecting one another and becoming unlikely allies. However, Vesuvius is rumbling, the clock is ticking and all Hell is about to be unleashed on the city that sleeps at its base.

Anderson is no stranger to effects movies with budgets that are far from extravagant as a veteran of the Resident Evil series. Like several of those movies, the CGI run hot and cold with in the case of Pompeii some of the green screen effects of the city stretching off in the distance and the mountain rising ominously in the distance look exactly like green screen effects. Nonetheless during the sequences in which the mountain is erupting in full fury and visiting its wrath upon the city below, the effects can be breathtaking – at times it seems like the ash floating down from the sky are going to nestle into your lap. Although I saw the standard version, friends and colleagues who have seen the 3D version have asserted that it is one of the best in that department.

Harrington, best known as the Stark bastard Jon Snow in the Game of Thrones HBO series, bulked up considerably for the role and while not having a whole lot of dialogue (Milo is depicted as being a brooding, unfriendly sort), nonetheless shows great promise as at least an action film leading man and maybe for other types of roles in the future as well. However, the wispy facial hair has to go – it makes him look like a high school junior.

The doe-eyed Browning never really seems to grasp what her character is supposed to be; at times she is a strong, Roman-style feminist who has more cojones than her milksop father. At other times she is a helpless damsel in distress. I don’t think this is a particular problem with Browning so much as a problem with the writing. I suspect that the character would have been strong throughout but the powers that be might have taken a hand in it.

Sutherland chews the scenery as the corrupt and vicious Corvus but has a good time doing it (although I can’t help thinking what Jack Bauer would have done in a season of 24 set in Pompeii). Yeah, he’s over-the-top but why the hell not? The whole city is about to be buried under tons of lava and ash after all so why not make a mark while there’s still a mark to be made. His arrogant patrician muscle Proculus, portrayed by Roiz who some may know better as Grimm‘s Captain Renard makes an ideal foil. Finally Akinnuoye-Agbaje is fine in what is essentially the same role played by Djimon Hounsou in Gladiator which is a much superior film.

Much of the reason this doesn’t measure up is that the story is so ludicrous and takes liberties with simple common sense. Why would anyone want to piss off a trained killer as happens repeatedly throughout the film? Historical evidence shows us that ancient Romans tread carefully around gladiators simply because as slaves who had only death to look forward to they had nothing to lose if they killed a tormentor. Quite the opposite, gladiators were treated with respect and honor.

Still, if one forgives the movie its pedestrian and predictable plot, the effects and action are certainly worthwhile. It’s the portions in between these action and special effects sequences that are often excruciating and leave one longing for a pyroclastic cloud  to come your way.

REASONS TO GO: Harrington a promising leading man. Some nifty disaster effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Hokey story. Some of the green screen effects are pretty poor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Gladiator battle-type violence, some of it bloody as well as disaster-related action – people getting crushed by falling masonry and so on. There is also some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrington underwent a regimen to attain the absolutely ripped body of Milo by going on a 3000 calorie diet for five weeks in what he called his “bulking” regimen. He cut back on this and went on a four week “cutting” regimen with intense training. During this time he went to the gym three times a day six days a week, developing body dysmorphia – extreme anxiety about the appearance of one’s body – forcing his trainer to step in and reign in the regimen. However, Harrington was very pleased with the overall results and proclaimed himself in the best shape of his life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Volcano

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Past

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New Releases for the Week of February 21, 2014


PompeiiPOMPEII

(TriStar) Kit Harrington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Paz Vega, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

A gladiator falls in love with the daughter of a patrician merchant who instead goes ahead to betroth her to a corrupt Roman senator. All this becomes less of an issue when Mt. Vesuvius blows it’s top and the residents of Pompeii must race against time to avoid becoming charcoal briquettes.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opened Thursday)

Genre: Swords and Sandals

Rating: PG-13 (for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content)

3 Days to Kill

(Relativity) Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen. One of the agency’s top field agents is anxious to leave his profession behind to spend more time with his estranged wife and daughter whom he’d kept at arm’s length so that he could keep them out of danger. However when he contracts a virulent fatal disease, he is forced to undertake one more mission so that he might get an experimental cure.

See the trailer, a promo and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language)

Highway

(UTV) Alia Bhatt, Randeep Hooda, Durgesh Kumar, Pradeep Nagar. A vivacious young woman, on her way to being married, is kidnapped by a group of brutal men for ransom. At first she is terrified. Her father due to his position is unwilling to pay the ransom. The leader of the gang who kidnapped her refuses to let her go. As the stalemate progresses the victim begins to develop feelings for her captor.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

In Secret

(Roadside Attractions/LD) Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange, Oscar Isaac. In glittering Paris of the 1860s, a beautiful young woman – sexually repressed and trapped in a loveless marriage overseen by her domineering aunt – embarks on an affair with an exciting young man. The ramifications of her actions will lead to tragic consequences. This is the most recent remake of the classic Emile Zola novel Therese Raquin.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: R (for sexual content and brief violent images)

The Past

(Sony Classics) Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet. Returning from Tehran to Paris after a four year separation, an Iranian husband arrives to finalize the divorce from his Parisian wife. However, once there he discovers a tense situation with her teenage daughter and her impending marriage to her new boyfriend bothers him more than he thought it might. On top of all of it, a secret from their past might just tear their fragile world apart.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and brief strong language)

Starting Over Again

(Star Cinema) Toni Gonzaga, Piolo Pascual. Iza Calzado. Four years after their breakup, a couple are brought back together when her architectural firm is selected to restore an old Manila mansion to be repurposed as a restaurant and he turns out to be the new eatery’s co-owner. However her feelings that this chance encounter is fate’s way of telling her she needs to seize her second chance and run with it may be derailed when she discovers that he intends to use the restaurant as a means of proposing to his American girlfriend.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

The Three Musketeers (2011)


The Three Musketeers

Resident Evil goes to 17th Century France

(2011) Adventure (Summit) Logan Lerman, Milla Jovovich, Matthew Macfadyen, Ray Stevenson, Luke Evans, Mads Mikkelsen, Christoph Waltz, Orlando Bloom, Juno Temple, Gabriella Wilde, Freddie Fox, James Corden, Til Schweiger, Helen George. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Sometimes, when all else fails, you can rely on the classics. Even if all else around you is crap, the classics can always be relied upon to be entertaining. At least that’s the common perception.

It is the 17th century and France is in turmoil. The teenage Louis XIII (Fox) is controlled essentially by the manipulative Cardinal Richelieu (Waltz) and the King’s own Musketeers have been rendered less potent. The three greatest Musketeers – Athos (Macfadyen), Porthos (Stevenson) and Aramis (Evans) are bored and frustrated at sitting on the sideline. Athos is in a particular funk after being betrayed by his lover Milady de Winter (Jovovich) when they had stolen the plans for an airship from Leonardo Da Vinci’s vault in Venice. After retrieving the plans, she’d drugged their wine and handed the plans over to Lord Buckingham (Bloom) of England.

A year has passed since then and a young Gascoigne named D’Artagnan (Lerman), the son of a former Musketeer, has journeyed to Paris to become a Musketeer himself. Along the way he fell afoul of Rochefort (Mikkelsen), captain of the Cardinal’s guard and supposedly the best swordsman in Europe who rather than duel the hot headed youngster just shoots him. His life is spared by Milady, who is also journeying to Paris.

In Paris D’Artagnan affronts all three of the Musketeers, challenging to duels at different times which all three of them unknowingly accept. However, his first duel is interrupted by the arrival of the Cardinal’s guard who wish to arrest the four of them for dueling in the streets. However the four fight alongside, winning the day despite a vast numerical disadvantage. This is witnessed by Constance (Wilde), handmaiden to the Queen (Temple). Despite D’Artagnan’s best efforts at flirting with Constance, he is rebuffed.

The three realize that D’Artagnan is an able ally and meant to be one of them, so they bring him to their home where their manservant Planchet  (Corden) waits on them cheerfully despite the constant complaining. They wind up being summoned to the palace where the King and Queen, impressed by their victory, reward them which infuriates the Cardinal who wanted them punished.

In the meantime, the nefarious Richelieu has hatched a scheme in which love letters in Buckingham’s own hand are planted in the Queen’s boudoir. Milady also steels a diamond necklace given to her as a gift by the King. Richelieu prevails upon the King to throw a ball after the King discovers the letters, and ask the Queen to wear the gift for him. If she doesn’t have them, it will mean the Queen’s having an affair and she would have to be executed and England declared war upon.

It is up to the Musketeers to retrieve the necklace from Buckingham’s own vault and to bring the culprits to justice, but it’s a nearly impossible task. Can the Musketeers avert a catastrophic war that would drag nearly the entire continent into it?

This isn’t your mom and dad’s version of The Three Musketeers (and there have been more than forty of them). For one thing, while it’s been a long time since I read the Alexandre Dumas classic, I’m pretty sure I don’t remember airships in it. Or Gatling guns. Or Matrix-style bullet dodging.

There is much more CGI than this kind of movie really needs to have. I can understand CG attempts to make the sets look more opulent, or more like 17th century France, but Da Vinci-esque airships, hidden vaults and storage rooms? It seems kind of unnecessary to me.

Unnecessary in that this is one of the best adventure tales ever written and despite all the different versions of it, it still stands up today. The best version is the 1948 film with Gene Kelly (of all people!) as D’Artagnan, but my all-time fave is the 1973 version with Michael York as D’Artagnan. It was produced by the Salkinds who would go on to make Superman: The Movie and other classics of 70s cinema.

One of the requirements for a good Three Musketeers movie is not chocolate nougat, but a good D’Artagnan. The successful ones do; even the unsuccessful ones have at least a passable D’Artagnan. This one has the latter. Lerman, who is best known here for Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (in which I described him as bland) is a bit better here, but he still lacks the charisma D’Artagnan needs. Lerman has got the looks though and the long hair…ladies will and do swoon.

I was particularly impressed by Macfadyen who has been a career supporting actor, but he really shows some impressive screen presence here and with the right role could do some real damage as a lead actor on a franchise film. Let’s hope he gets the chance.

The movie has some nice casting touches (Waltz is terrific as Richelieu although we don’t get to see enough of him – when we do we get a good idea of his devious nature) and a few huh moments (Milla Jovovich seems to be channeling her inner Alice from the Resident Evil franchise which wouldn’t be a bad thing but it is distracting when she’s wearing petticoats). All in all the acting is solid and the CGI is seamless. I’m told the 3D effects are nice in places as well, although of late I’ve become as anti-3D as Roger Ebert.

This is a movie that I really wanted to see succeed. Anderson has proven a fine action director on the Resident Evil films and while I agree that there are always new ways to come at the Dumas source material, this way was too full of anachronisms and logical gaps to really fully capture my heart. However, it is entertaining even if it’s attempts at being grand fall a bit short.

REASONS TO GO: Nice special effects and some fine swordplay. Macfadyen makes a fine Athos.

REASONS TO STAY: Takes a lot of liberties with the story. Doesn’t have the wit of the 1973/1974 versions.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of swordplay, a few things blowing up real good and some musket shooting. All in a day’s work for a musketeer.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Waltz has the same birthday (October 4) as Charlton Heston, who also played Cardinal Richelieu in the 1973/1974 versions of the Dumas classic.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much a big screen epic extravaganza.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Conviction

Death Race


Death Race

Who was that masked man?

(Universal) Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Jason Clarke, Fred Koehler, Max Ryan, Robin Shou, Jacob Vargas, Robert LaSardo. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

The masses need bread and circuses to distract them when times are hard. The harder things are, the more violent the circus must be in order to keep the mob happy.

In the near future after the U.S. economy collapsed, crime skyrocketed, overwhelming the prison system. In order to cope, the federal government privatized the prison system, creating prisons for profit. In order to recoup their costs, one corporate prison, led by innovative (and bitchy) warden Hennessey (Allen) has come up with a unique concept; Death Race. A combination of gladiator games, chariot races and NASCAR, convicts drive souped-up cars that are heavily armed and armored. However in order to activate weapons, drivers have to drive over lighted shields and swords. They are aided by female navigators from a neighboring woman’s prison. The drivers get a full pardon and release if they win five races.

The most popular driver in Death Race is Frankenstein. He is a mysterious guy whose face is reputedly so disfigured by all the crashes he’s been in that he wears a mask. Unbeknownst to the world, Frankenstein has died after his most recent race and the ratings are sure to plummet once word gets out.

Jensen Ames (Statham) is an honest, hard-working guy who used to be a very good race driver. After getting laid off from his steel mill job, he comes home to find his wife murdered. He is, of course, blamed for the deed and sent to the tender mercy of Warden Hennessey’s care. She offers him a deal; he takes over the persona of Frankenstein and he will be given credit for the number of wins that Frankenstein has already achieved – four, so if he wins one more race, Ames will go free.

However, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Ames has already alienated Pachenko (Ryan), the local white supremacist and Frankenstein has a major rivalry going with Machine Gun Joe (Gibson), who means to take out Frankenstein. However, Ames has an excellent crew; the fatherly Coach (McShane), the nervous but brilliant Lists (Koehler) and the navigator Case (Martinez). However, all is not as kosher as it seems and Ames finds out that in order to survive the Death Race he may need to become more brutal than he can ever imagine.

Director Anderson, whose cinematic resume includes the Resident Evil series, the much-underrated Event Horizon and AVP: Alien vs. Predator, has remade the Roger Corman camp classic Death Race 2000. He has removed much of the humor from it and ratcheted up the gore and action quotient. The result is a satisfactory action movie that while is definitely on the visceral side certainly keeps your attention.

Statham is one of my favorite action heroes and while this isn’t one of his more interesting roles, he brings home the bacon here. Jensen Ames comes from a long line of falsely accused men forced to do reprehensible things in prison starting with movies like The Shawshank Redemption and moving on through movies like The Longest Yard. This won’t win any new converts to the Statham bandwagon but neither will it disappoint his fans.

Allen and McShane are two engaging actors and you wonder what they are doing in obvious B-Movie fodder like this one. Still, they are here and they elevate the movie quite a bit, particularly McShane who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors.

The stunts here are way over-the-top, with cars bouncing around like bumper cars and flying through the air like Frisbees. There are plenty of explosions and enough gunfire to fill up World War Two. I have to admit I didn’t care for the soundtrack; it wasn’t so much the heavy metal guitars, which are a bit on the cliché side, but that all the riffs sounded like rip-offs from other songs.

This is the kind of movie that easily gets overlooked. Critics tore it a new one when it was released but I think they were a bit harsh. Certainly this isn’t Oscar material but then it never aimed for that kind of bar. This was meant to be diverting, visceral entertainment that allows viewers to use as little of their brains as they wish to, and that is a perfectly fine ambition.

WHY RENT THIS: Mindless action movie fun that moves at a ridiculous pace.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ultra-violent and too much mediocre metal on the score.

FAMILY VALUES: Over-the-top violence and a cornucopia of f-bombs and other harsh language make this a definite mature audience’s only feature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the first Frankenstein was supplied by David Carradine, who played Frankenstein in Death Race 2000.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version utilizes Universal’s U-Control interactive features which show race standings during the race sequences as well as an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes footage in picture-in-picture style. In addition, there is a feature which allows viewers to edit their own version of the second stage of the race from seven different angles.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Pandorum